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A novel and its heroine have both been around and improved with age

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Twenty years separated the first draft and the publication of Mary Oertel-Kirschner’s debut novel “Never Too Old, A Blanche Harriman Mystery.” The book came out this year.

Mary Oertel-Kirschner discusses, signs “Never Too Old, A Blanche Harriman Mystery” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 at Barnes & Noble, Coronado Shopping Center.

Blanche is the central character in this cozy mystery that’s a pleasurable summer read. She’s smart, perceptive and dogged.

“In that first draft I had the idea of an older woman as the heroine,” said Oertel-Kirschner, an Albuquerque author, poet and painter. “I made her 68 years old.”

When the author dusted off the manuscript a few years back, she decided to age Blanche.

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“Blanche didn’t seem old to me. I’m 72 now. So I changed her age to 78,” the author said.

She returned to the manuscript thanks in large part to the encouragement of her writing group. The group urged her to publish the book.

But first she transferred the manuscript onto a new computer and did an immense amount of editing and polishing.

“I didn’t want to be specific about the (time period), but I wanted it to sound pretty contemporary, as in the early part of the 21st century,” she said.

She then asked two people to read the latest draft. One was a member of the writing group, and the other was Judith Van Gieson, the author of 13 mysteries and a partner in ABQ Press, which published “Never Too Old.”

The novel is set in an upscale Santa Fe retirement community, La Mesa del Sol, where Blanche resides. (Oertel-Kirschner has lived in Santa Fe.)

The story opens with Blanche waiting for a longtime friend and fellow retiree for breakfast. The friend, Margaret Forbes, had told Blanche about “something strange going on at La Mesa” that she needed Blanche’s help with. Margaret is a no-show.

Informed that Margaret has died of a heart attack, Blanche is incredulous. Margaret had never mentioned any heart problems. Indeed, Margaret appeared to be a healthy octogenarian, except for arthritis.

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Blanche takes it upon herself to find out if there’s something sinister behind her friend’s death.

Suspect are Dr. Avery Hillman, the residence’s physician who prescribed medicine for Margaret; the Rev. Kenneth Adams, minister of a small congregation, leaving him plenty of time to “ingratiate himself with the wealthy widows at La Mesa”; Anthony Grace,the residence’s administrator with ambitions to climb the company ladder; and Margaret’s nephew Jack, who has been mismanaging her money.

There’s also a subplot woven in about an undocumented worker.

Blanche doesn’t do all the snooping on her own. She gets help from her senior pals Esther Zamora and Ruby Goldmark. The novel probably isn’t the last we’ll hear from Blanche.

Oertel-Kirschner said she’s planning to develop a second Blanche Harriman mystery.

George Paloheimo Jr.’s cover design shows the back of a woman wearing an off-the-shoulder emerald scarf, a fuchsia jumpsuit and a wide-brimmed white hat. That’s Blanche.

Mary Oertel-Kirschner discusses, signs “Never Too Old, A Blanche Harriman Mystery” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 at Barnes & Noble, Coronado Shopping Center.

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